Disability and Healing: A Sermon for Proper 16C, 2022

This past week, I read Amy Kenny’s My Body is not a prayer request: Disability Justice in the Church. Kenny is disabled and writes passionately and with humor about her experience with the medical establishment, with Christians. She also calls for a rethinking, not just of architecture and attitudes, but of our theology and language of worship, urging us not just to accommodate the needs of disabled people but to incorporate them fully in the life of the church and of society. 

I was reading it at the same time that I was hearing criticism of current attitudes toward COVID restrictions—knowing that many people are living with conditions that make them especially vulnerable and that by demanding a return to normalcy, we are relegating them to live in constant fear or in isolation. At the same time, I read about cases in Canada, where medically assisted suicide is now legal, that doctors and medical personnel have encouraged some disabled people to undergo suicide because they were burdens to the medical system, or in one case, there was no adequate housing available for the person in question.

For Kenny, one of the great challenges in her life is how people respond to her disability. Each chapter concludes with a list of remarks people have made to her. Among them: “At least you’ll be running in heaven”

Or among the top ten reasons she is disabled:

“God needed a special angel” or

“You’ve given up hope.” Or

“You need to have a little more faith.”

Kenny and other disability advocates challenge us to work toward a world, spaces, society which are fully inclusive of all people. We are being challenged to rethink our assumptions, to reorient our perspectives, and to rebuild our spaces.

Such challenges cut to the very heart of our assumptions about scripture and faith. For example, the healing stories in the gospels are easily read in light of those assumptions. For example, in today’s reading, it’s easy to interpret this as simply another one of those demonstrations of Jesus’ compassion and divine power, healing a woman who had been disabled for eighteen years.

But it is a much more complex story than that.

But wait, that’s not quite the story Luke tells. First of all, the woman. Luke doesn’t tell us why she came to the synagogue. What he doesn’t say is that she came because Jesus was there, that she was hoping Jesus would heal her, that she asked Jesus to heal her. In fact, she doesn’t say anything to Jesus, she doesn’t touch his garment; she doesn’t disrupt the service. It’s Jesus who notices her and stops what he’s doing to heal her. Moreover, Luke says nothing about her faith, that it was faith in Jesus that brought her to the synagogue, or that she came to faith because of the healing. All he says is that after she’s healed, she praises God.

And before we succumb too quickly to the Jesus against Judaism trope, remember where this is taking place, in a synagogue, on the Sabbath. In fact, it’s the third time Luke places Jesus in a synagogue on the Sabbath. More importantly perhaps, all three times Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in it. In other words, it’s not just that Jesus behaved like a good Jew by going to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He was seen in all three locations as an authority on scripture, on the law, and was asked to teach, or preach, if you’d rather. He was interpreting Torah, interpreting the law to the assembled congregation. So for him to interrupt his teaching and train of thought, to notice a woman coming in, for him to stop everything and heal her is quite a big deal.

Then there’s the woman herself. What brought her to the synagogue that day? Was it her custom? Was it desperation? What was her life like? For eighteen years she had been bent over, more literally the text could read, as the KJV does, “bowed together,” unable to straighten herself out. For eighteen years, her eyes were on the ground as she walked. She could not see the faces of anyone. She hadn’t felt the warmth of the sun on her cheeks; she hadn’t been able to look at the sky, or the horizon. Her world had narrowed to the few square feet directly in front of her.

What did she do when she was healed? She stretches out to her full stature. What must that have felt like? Can you imagine the sudden freedom? The new perspective on the world? What is her immediate response? She praises God—by the way, that was something that was typically done standing up, arms outstretched to the sky. Had the fact that her body forced her almost into a prostrate position kept her soul from glorifying God, from lifting itself up to God in praise? 

There’s something else in the story that’s curious. After the healing, the focus shifts to a dialogue between the Synagogue ruler and Jesus. The ruler criticizes Jesus for healing on the Sabbath but his criticism isn’t primarily directed at the question of its legality. Rather, he seems focused on Jesus breaking another rule—people come to the synagogue for healing on the other six days of the week. The ruler wants to keep it that way. Sabbath in the synagogue is not for healing but for other things.

So there’s a lot going on in this little healing story and there’s much we could say about it. But I want to focus on one thing in particular. In the ancient illness, disability was often understood to be the result of something—of sin. So in John 9, when Jesus and his disciples encounter the man born blind, his disciples ask him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Illness or disability reflected a disordered person, a disordered soul. In this story, both Luke and Luke’s Jesus take care to emphasize that the woman’s condition is not because of sinfulness, not caused by something she has done or who she is, but that it comes from outside of her, from Satan or an evil spirit.

Just as the ancient world understood illness in a particular way, it also understood wellness, or healing very differently than we do. The word for healing, for wholeness, was the same word as that translated as salvation—so physical healing was tied up with spiritual healing, the healing of the whole person, and the restoration of that person into community. Healing, and wholeness does not necessarily mean the end of a physical or mental disability, but rather wholeness or healing of one’s relationship with God, and inclusion in community.

One thing Kenny points out in scripture that I had never noticed before was that there are repeated references to the inclusion of lame people in the vision of the kingdom or reign of God.  So, for example, in the very next chapter of Luke, Jesus says: 

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, 

I’m grateful that the leaders of Grace had the vision nearly thirty-five years ago to install an elevator, in order to make our spaces more accessible. I’m grateful that we installed a hearing loop to make our services more accessible to those with hearing challenges. I’m grateful that the pandemic forced us to explore new technologies so that our services are available, usually, to people who find it difficult to come to church. 

Such measures are not accommodations, but the bare minimum. There’s more to do, however. We need to rethink our attitudes, even our theology, to understand that all human beings bear God’s image, no matter what they look like, no matter what their physical or mental challenges might be. We also need to recognize and embrace the reality that people who are disabled are beloved of God and our siblings in Christ. 

I’m reminded that the risen Christ bore on his body the marks of his crucifixion. For my old friend St. Augustine, that was a sign that in the general resurrection, when we are finally in God’s presence, we may continue to carry on us and in us signs of our physical challenges, that our bodies would not be made perfect according to some cultural ideal of beauty, that we would not all look the same, but that we would continue to carry on us signs of those infirmities, even though we would no longer be suffering bodily from those infirmities or disabilities.

As we continue to work toward full inclusion of all those who come to us, as we advocate for a society that embraces all humans in all of their fullness, diversity, and disability, may we also look to Christ, who offers us healing and compassion, and who gives us hope and wholeness, even when our bodies remain broken.

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